Parthenon marbles, the historic gesture of the Vatican

Parthenon marbles, the historic gesture of the Vatican

A horse’s head with a mane in the wind, the face of a young man and that of an adult, fine beard and almond-shaped eyes, will attract all eyes this Friday, March 24, in Athens. It is that after about two centuries of exile in the Vatican, the three marble sculptures return to their bosom: the Acropolis, where, since the 5th century BC, they were part of the innumerable ornaments of the Parthenon.

After having obtained them in the 19th century in unclear circumstances, then placed among the “masterpieces” in its museums, the smallest state in the world decided, in December, to return them to Greece. A strong symbol.

Since its independence in 1832, Athens has endeavored to reconstitute the unity of its ancient treasure, many marbles of which were taken away and scattered here and there in Europe, but above all in the United Kingdom, where a 75-meter-long frieze forms the pride of the British Museum.

A “gift” and not a restitution

Sign of the historical importance of the moment: an official ceremony, in the presence of the Greek authorities as well as representatives of the Vatican and the Orthodox Church, must surround the return of the three marbles. This, however, does not constitute a « restitution » strictly speaking, but « don » to the Orthodox Church of Greece and not to the Greek State. Much more than a nuance, at a time when many countries are claiming ownership of their property looted during the colonial period…

“The term “donation” underlines the exceptional nature of this act, explains a Vatican source who has followed the case very closely. This is not a new refund policy. Otherwise, given the large number of works kept in the Vatican Museums, it would be like opening Pandora’s box for us. »

The term also has the merit of avoiding potentially embarrassing topics. “This word also allows us not to investigate how these pieces ended up in the Vatican,” adds the same source. Purchase ? Ownership? What purpose ? The principle of the gift makes it possible to maintain silence on the past.

Greece sees no reason to protest, which intends to dispose of the three marbles as it pleases. She has already planned to reposition them ” in their place “, we explain to the Ministry of Culture, in all the friezes already exhibited at the 3e floor of the Acropolis Museum. “The marbles are given to the Archbishop of Athens but, so that they can be integrated into all the architectural elements of the Parthenon, kept at the Acropolis Museum”, explains Father Emmanuel Papamikroulis, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church who signed the agreement formalizing the donation.

In the end, it is therefore the Greek State which, in fact, plays the role of recipient. “My role was above all practical, but I somehow had the feeling of taking part in a very important historical moment, both for Greece and for our Churches”, continues Father Emmanuel Papamikroulis.

Tool for a rapprochement between Rome and the Orthodox Church of Greece

The donation also allows Rome to show its good intentions vis-à-vis the Orthodox Church of Greece, independent of the Patriarchate of Constantinople since it proclaimed itself unilaterally autocephalous in 1833. Dialogue has not always been easy with its leaders, who are considered to be the most intransigent in the Orthodox galaxy with regard to the Catholic Church.

John Paul II’s visit to Athens in 2001 had begun to calm relations. Since 2005, the Orthodox Church has invited each year, at its expense, about twenty students from the Roman Pontifical Universities.

For its part, Rome also welcomes Orthodox students, but more occasionally. Also, several universities dependent on the Vatican have emphasized Greek courses. Exchanges also take place between the Faculty of Theology of Salonica and the Pontifical Antonianum University (linked to the Franciscans), which organize a joint colloquium every two years.

“The return of the Parthenon fragments to Athens is part of this contextwe explain to the Dicastery for Christian Unity, two senior officials of which will attend the ceremony on 24 March. It is a personal gesture from the pope, as a sign of the desire for unity. »

Francis’ visit to Greece in December 2021 played a key role in his decision, facilitated by the fact that the three marbles “are not central pieces in the collections of the Museums”, says a Vatican source.

Like a restitution, the Vatican’s donation helps to settle the past. “It allows the two Churches not to remain prisoners of their own histories”, welcomes Nikos Tzoitis, close to the Patriarchate of Constantinople and expert in the Orthodox world. And to insist on the importance of the symbolism of the “gift” in the Christian message. “By doing this, the pope affirms, in his own way, that it is important to be able to make sacrifices for a brother who is separated. »

A step towards other restitutions?

Will the gesture of the Vatican be emulated? Greece is counting on it. “The Orthodox Church of Greece hopes that this initiative of the Pope will find imitators”, said Father Papamikroulis. An implicit address to the British Museum which, until now, refuses any return of the marbles it holds.

“For him, returning the Parthenon marbles is as if we were considering having to give the Sistine Chapel”, explains a source in the Vatican. “Certain museums where they are not central pieces, such as the National Museum of Denmark, can perhaps reflect”, adds Alexander Herman, director of the Institute of Art and Law, in London.

Even if it does not bear the name of “restitution”, the return to Athens of the three sculptures could also make people envious. Since their visit last spring to the Ethnological Museum of the Vatican, indigenous communities in Canada have been demanding the return of some of their works.

The Vatican’s gesture has only one precedent: the return to Peru, in October 2022, of three Inca mummies acquired in 1925, on the occasion of the Vatican Missionary Exhibition. “This was done on the initiative of the Holy See, which justified this donation by stressing that they were human remains”, explains today the Ambassador of Peru to the Holy See, Jorge Eduardo Roman Morey.

At the time, the Vatican had also presented this gift as unique, already being careful not to want to rush into a policy of generalized restitution.


Fragments scattered in Europe

The most iconic fragments of the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum, London, which, in addition to a spectacular piece of the 75-meter-long frieze, holds statues and metopes (ornate architectural panels).

Two fragments of the frieze are also in the Louvre. The National Museum of Denmark, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Austria) and the Würzburg Museum (Germany) also hold small parts of the fresco.

In January 2022, Italy loaned Athens, for a period of eight years, a piece of the fresco until then exhibited at the Antonio Salinas Museum in Palermo.


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